There's a lot of talk about Michael Phelps being the greatest Olympian of all time. His 21 Olympic medals are a record, and his compilation of them is an impressive feat. But the medal inflation in swimming devalues that medal count so much that there's no way to point to the sheer number and claim he's the greatest Olympian ever.
It's long bothered me that swimming hands out so many medals. At the 200-meter distance, Phelps' specialty, they hand out five individual gold medals. In 2008, three of his medals came at this same distance, as he swam the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter medley.
For the same distance that Usain Bolt got one medal, Phelps got three.
Consider a sport like basketball. These athletes have to play several games just to qualify for the playoffs. Then they have to win several more games to earn one single medal. By swimming's standards, there would be medals handed out for games won, free-throw percentage, most points, most assists, most rebounds and there would be a shuttle race at the end for kicks.
Or how about tennis? These athletes have to win five matches to earn a medal. These matches are often grueling, going on for one to two hours in the hot sun. They spend their entire Olympic Games busting their ass for a shot at one gold medal.
In Beijing, for less than an half-hour of swimming, Phelps got eight.
Phelps has rarely been the fastest person in the pool at any distance. At only one distance in one Olympics was Phelps the fastest person. In 2008, he had the fastest 200m time of any swimmer at any stroke. Why? Because the freestyle is the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Every other Olympic games, he wasn't the fastest person at any distance.
Do you think if Phelps was trying to evade a great white shark he'd break into the butterfly? Like Dressage in Equestrian, he mastered the form of an artistic swim stroke, and he's taken advantage of it.
Swimmers will say I don't understand the sport, that I don't understand the nuances of each stroke and how difficult it is to master two of them. I understand it just fine. I realize there are different skills, different muscles, used for each event. I understand the butterfly is very different from the backstroke.
But imagine if track and field took swimming's lead and created distinct ways to get to the finish line, confusing the measurement of simply being the fastest.
We'd have the 100-meter "skip," where athletes have to skip down the track as fast as possible. The 400-meter "backwards run" would be a crowd favorite, as athletes put their quads - and spatial awareness - to the test, running backwards around the track. My personal choice would be the 200-meter "cartwheel," where athletes would have to do cartwheels all the way around until they crossed the finish line.
If track and field went the direction of swimming, Carl Lewis would have 30 Olympic medals.
I'm not sure why swimming stopped where it did. Just think of the fun possibilities. How about an underwater-only event, where athletes had to be submerged for 25 meters at a time? Or a corkscrew stroke where they had to spin in the water as they swam? And what on earth ever happened to the doggy-paddle? Let's just inflate the whole thing so there are so many strokes, nearly everybody gets a medal! I can do the doggy-paddle with the best of them!
There's an easy way to fix all of this and keep the strokes: hold only one event at each distance, the medley. To compete, you have to master all of the strokes that swimmers hold so dear. With that, Phelps' Olympic medal total would stand around 10, which is right where he stands in Olympic stature ... somewhere in the vicinity of the great Carl Lewis. And that, as I said, is an incredible accomplishment.
Greatest swimmer of all time? Probably. Greatest Olympian of all time? Not on your life.
I'll take the incredible Italian fencer Valentina Vezzali over Phelps' accomplishments any day. She's won an individual fencing medal in five straight Olympics, including three straight golds. She's also led her team to three golds and a bronze (the team event wasn't included in 2004, or she would have had another gold). She's won more Olympic fencing medals than all but four countries!
Just don't get me started on gymnastics ...